All You Ever Wanted to Know about the History of Piracy and Digital Distribution…

…but were too afraid to ask.

The site is back!… and mildly snazzier. The UI has had an overhaul and things should be a bit simpler now. The primary addition is that new menu bar up there that should help you get around if you feel like wandering off the blog-beaten trail.

However the real reason the UI got updated was because now the site is hosting a load of new goodies. My thesis is due for submission in just over a week and because I like to be revolutionary (awkward), a lot of the resources I produced to go along with the thesis can’t be conveyed on paper that easily. So instead they’re here for the reader to access, and as a bonus, that means they’re here for anyone to get at. So what can you get your hands on?

Peer-to-Peer Networks: How do they do it!?

Ever wondered how Napster worked, or maybe you’re confused about the complicated
majesty that is BitTorrent. Be confused no more as the video guides show you through handy animations the operation of the most popular peer-to-peer protocols over the last decade.

The History of Digital Distribution: There’s a lot of it.

The main aspect of my thesis is the histories I’ve produced documenting the development and impact of the major piracy systems of the last decade. As part of this history I generated a fairly dense timeline of events running from 1998 to 2010 which helped me keep things in order as I wrote. I’ve provided the timeline here for your perusal.

There’s a bit of Pirate in us All

One of the more interesting things I found during my research was where those legally fuzzy peer-to-peer technologies ended up. The Illicit Influence Map shows how the illicit tech of the piratey world impacted on the businesses and media delivery systems of today. Unfortunately the diagram won’t tell you exactly how (you’ll have to read the thesis for that) but maybe once you see the connection you’ll be inspired to go find out more.

Everything is accessible under ‘Thesis Resource’ and licensed under Creative Commons, so go forth and tinker!

‘Instant Pop’: Give the Kids What they Want

Grabbed from The Guardian

Ten years after piracy first began to ravage the music industry, Britain’s two biggest record labels will finally try to play their part in stopping it, by making new singles available for sale on the day they first hit the airwaves.

Now this, is a good thing.

The further I’ve read into the technicalities of retailing digital media the more sympathetic I’ve become to the difficulties of digital retail. This softening of my opinion has primarily come via reading a healthy dose of intellectual property law and the various EULAs attached to services like iTunes, Steam and Amazon’s digital arm, those things none of us read but sign our souls away to, quite literally in some cases. I’ll post something regarding my adventures in EULAland in the near future; for now we’ll stick to the recent ‘Instant Pop’ announcement.

As much as I have softened in some regards, there are still areas where I’m fairly critical regarding industry practice. Digital retail at first seems to be about manufacturing scarcity in an inherently bountiful product, something that is profoundly difficult. However rather than apply old scarcity economics to digital media, the successful retailers have realised that it is not the product that gains them the custom, but the service surrounding it. The latest pop hit is the latest pop hit, whether you buy it from Amazon, iTunes or pull it down off of some P2P network. What differs is the process surrounding that acquisition. P2P is a pretty good service if you ignore the legality issue; contrary to industry opinion the files are of high quality, speeds are solid and if you are competent enough to operate some P2P client you’ll probably be street wise enough to not get a trojan of some sort.

With a service like iTunes however, because of their nice walled little empire they have something that P2P doesn’t; that nice little button, default on all iPods and iPhones that says ‘iTunes Store’. As long as you’ve got connectivity you can hit that button, search for a track and purchase within about 30 seconds. Then it’s there ready for you to own it at the moment you decided you wanted to own it. Put this hand in hand with radio and you’ve got a brilliant system; song comes on the radio, listener hears it, likes it, wants it. Listener goes to device in pocket and a few taps later they have it. The price is higher than P2P, but P2P couldn’t give it to them right then and there. The customer paid to have the song NOW.

iTunes WiFi Store Logo

People are walking around with miniature record shops in their pocket all day, at any moment they have the potential to purchase a small something that takes their fancy or even go on a media bender when looking to kill some time. Having a gap between radio promotion and single release, to deny the individual the option to purchase it at that moment when they are primed to be consumer, to tell them to wait and buy it in a few weeks, a few days, even a few hours, is a strategy that will lose you that customer. They’ve had the marketing plugged straight into them, they’ve got the shop out of their pocket and are ready to go, but due to a perception that you can still maintain media scarcity, there’s no single in the shop and the customer will look elsewhere because they know they can get it somehow, it’ll just take a bit more work.

This instant pop strategy is a good one, it plays to new behaviours of consumption and takes advantage of the fact that a grand majority of people are hooked up to media retail wherever and whenever. It won’t be a panacea for piracy, there’s more factors in people’s decisions to pirate than simply speed and convenience, sometimes p2p offer a service or a product that the legit spaces don’t. However for those people who previously would have taken the costlier but quicker option if only they had one, this move will bring them back in to the shop.

Guardian Article: Universal and Sony Music plan ‘instant pop’ to beat piracy

Props to @tegularius00 for sending me the article.

Article Update: Embargo!

I got an update on the progress of open-accessing my article and it is both good and bad all at the same time. The wonderful White Rose Foundation has now begun hosting my paper for people outside of academia to access. However, as much as they want to free it to the world, Taylor and Francis, the publishers of the journal have placed an 18 month embargo on making articles open access.

She's a sexy sassy MEP

That means it won’t be truly free until April 2012, at which point the masses of (two) people who want to read it will have given up and gone elsewhere, distracted by the hover-boards, jetpacks and flying cars that will be plentiful in 2012.

There is a silver lining however; if you want a copy you can go to the White Rose page and press the request button, at which point I will email one out to you post haste. The form just asks for an email and a reason for requesting it. I don’t mind if you put a reason or not but stick ‘DCI’ in there for good measure.

LINK: Request your copy now! (Hoverboard not included)

My First Article! – Mobile Ideas

My first academic article has been published in the most recent issue of Mobilities. Co-written with my supervisor Dr David Beer, it’s a write-up of my Masters project from a couple of years ago where I attempted to track how an idea was transmitted from its author out across the net by logging every instance I could find. The idea I used as my guinea pig was Bruce Sterling’s Spime concept and he has been kind enough to give us a quick mention over on Wired. From his response I think he likes it, which is definitely a relief!

As its an academic article its been nicely wrapped up and locked away from people (or institutions) who don’t have subscriptions to the journal. If you do have access in some way or another you can find the article over at the Mobilities e-Journal site.

Unfortunately despite being the one of the authors, I can’t Creative Commons it (academic publishing is a confusing space) however we are working on getting an open access version so that anyone can read the paper if they would like to. I’ll make another post as soon as it’s available.

The article’s data and visualisations are still freely accesible though as we’ve published them online for various reasons. Take a look!

Official Mobilities Article
Open Access Version – Press the ‘Request a Copy’ Button (Why?)
Mobile Ideas Data Website

Announcement: PPUK Manifesto Released

Just a quick announcement to spread the news.

Members of the PPUK have been working very hard to produce the party manifesto in time for the coming election. I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t one of them, however whoever did has done a cracking job. It’s now available online and can be downloaded in a variety of PDF formats for printing.

It has thoroughly surpassed my expectations and I am pleased to say I agree with every aspect of it: I’m proud to be a member of PPUK.

Real Culture is Bought Culture

I should be writing my thesis at this moment, however a small jaunt over to the Open Rights Group blog left me with a small thought (just a small one mind) about the perhaps less obvious disruptions that digital media have caused. One of the commenters on the most recent post stated…

You ORG people are pathetic. I’d like to see your point of view if it was you who produced a film or wrote a book in the course of your work (your way of life, how you get paid), and little slimy leeches like the operators of the Pirate Bay/Oink/etc made a crapload of money in ad revenue/subscription fees for enabling the piracy of your work, giving you nothing in return. The majority of your spotty live-in- parents-basement members should get out more, get a girlfriend, just get out and please join the real world where people need to get paid for their work. I hope you’re not ever actually taken seriously at the government level, your counter-arguments are too poor to be taken seriously.

As you’d expect from a blog comments section this elicited a fair amount of responses, many (though inevitably not all) of which I’m happy to say were much more polite and much less aggressive than the above. Now this may be a case where one should pull out the ‘Don’t Feed the Trolls’ sign, however it does illustrate a larger issue.

The countless discussions that we have about copyright these days always seem to be chipping away at an assumption of what creative work is that we have had for a long time. If you wanted to bring in some classic critical theory and invoke Adorno and Horkheimer’s writings on mass culture (which I do because I’m a geeky obsessive), you would hark back to their considerations of how mass culture has impacted our understanding of what the value of culture is. When they were criticising the idea that culture could be commodified and sold as a product they were also concerned that only culture which was commodified would be classified as ‘real’ culture, with the rest being confined to the derogatory category of ‘amateur’, creativity without profit. What seemed to define real culture from amateur culture was the involvement of some economic value. Therefore only people that make money from their cultural production are ‘real’ artists and culture is best judged on its economic merits. Now this of course is a gross simplification; as anyone that has a passion for any sphere of culture will rabidly argue, just because something sells a lot doesn’t mean it’s any good. However this conflation of economic value with cultural value seems to have stuck in areas.

For example last year when Lily Allen made her little snafu and pissed off the entire internet (hyperbole noted), I recall she stated that she would prefer people go out and buy bootleg copies of her albums from street vendors than pirate it online, because at least that way it had some value. To Lily it seemed her music was worthless unless someone was willing to pay her for it. Likewise from the comments much was made about the commenter’s assumption that ‘ORG People’ could not be creative people because they did not support copyright (In fact as Jim Killock corrected them, ORG do support copyright but not the infringement of our human rights in the name of its protection). Many others replied that in fact many creative people, both ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ were members of ORG and that it was a rather simplified perception of the organisation. One commenter especially, Prof. Andres Guadamuz of The University of Edinburgh, highlighted the issue very well saying…

There is this remarkably short-sighted idea that only those who profit from copyright industries have the right to make any arguments… the vast majority of people are engaged in creative processes, be it taking photographs, writing poems, writing a blog, etc. Only because some people are lucky enough to get rewarded for their creations does not de-legitimise everyone else.

This I think is the crux of the copyright debates along with the progression made in ‘amateurism’ and creativity. That people outside of the established cultural industries are able to produce and distribute work of comparable quality has brought the debates about copyright out of a corporatised context and down to an individual level. Where copyright was once the domain of the industry and viewed in a purely economic context, now it has seeped into the domain of the individual, and its more restrictive elements are visible. People that produce creative work without an economic focus are joining the debate. Again this is not to say it should be abolished, as much of copyright law is about protecting the consumer as well as the producer, it just needs updating for this de-corporatised context. As for the original commenter, they should not be dismissed as just ignorant, but should be engaged with. Not only is the view espoused real, but it is also deeply rooted from decades of commodified creativity. If we are going to reach an equilibrium between industrial and ‘amateur’ creativity, it will need to be addressed.

Then again, maybe I just fed the troll….

Unpacking My Library

Long ago when I left my parents’ home for far away shores I left behind a mountainous pile of what can be best described as ‘stuff’. This ‘stuff’ consisted primarily of media, in shiny round form in lots and lots of little plastic cases, some of which were then inside unnecessarily big cardboard boxes. When it was finalised that the family house would soon no longer be the family house we were forced to deal with my mountainous pile of stuff.

The old computer games that I whittled my childhood away with were first. Initially the cardboard had to be dealt with, as well as the reams of paper manuals that games used to require. All of that went to the recycling centre and as for the discs, they had to be chucked. The discs, so old and incompatible with the computers we have now were essentially useless to anyone not running a computer they bought 15 years ago. The games that the discs contained are readily available on services such as Steam and Good Old Games, nicely patched up and able to handle the operating environments that were inconceivable when they were first written. However unfortunately for the discs and anyone that abhors waste, the games in their original form were useless, too solidified in a particular era to be used now. They couldn’t even be recycled and it was at that point that I realised how glad I was that I buy my games as a digital download.

Next came the stacks of music CDs, all the albums I had collected since I became aware enough to have a taste in music. They weren’t necessarily useless, but they had become superfluous to my day to day life. All my music now lives on my laptop, backed up across various devices and drives. The physicality of discs is too much of a burden in both storage and inflexibility. I went through them one by one, remembering where I had bought them and if there were any poignant experiences that had them as a soundtrack. Their songs were copied onto the laptop, catalogued by various online music database systems and then the discs were sent off to Music Magpie, who paid me an average of 30p per disc. A significant devaluation from the average of £7-£12 they cost back in the height of CD dominance. Some discs survived the purge, quite what my criteria was I was unsure of even at the time of choosing. Some I knew I wanted to keep to show my children, others just seemed to exude an aura of significance in their physical form. They seemed to have developed an identity more significant to me than simple exchangeable commodity, but I still couldn’t tell you exactly why.

Yet in a strange antithesis to this story, the media I acquired most of over the christmas period was books in tangible wood pulp with black ink form. A format relatively unchanged for centuries and surely due for a reboot considering the relatively short life cycles of other media. Yet rather than preparing myself for the great bookshelf exodus, I’m instead eagerly buying more. Every one is significantly placed on my office shelves and to me the ownership is solidified as a lifetime relationship. The concept that I would rid myself of them is absurd, they will be with me for as long as I exist.

There was also another type of media that had incredible significance and demanded proper archival treatment. Amongst the various boxes and cases lay recordable CDs, unlabelled but clearly used. Before going to University I was in a band, and I have always considered it to be a significant part of my life. Due to the diligence and sacrifice of one of our party, we were fortunate enough to have our own studio. This gave us the opportunity to record songs when the mood took us, and these songs were usually burnt onto CDs to be taken home for review. These recordable, unlabelled and unarchived CDs had the potential to be those studio discs. This led to a night of exploration, going through them disc by disc searching to see what was contained. Many of them were nothing of significance but a few contained biographical gold, including one which essentially amounted to a definitive archive of all artwork, promotional posters, photos, management correspondence and some raw audio data. All of this was swiftly copied to the laptop, backed up and then the discs carefully noted, ready to be stored for an unknown period; perhaps until disc drives are driven to obsolesce.

So why have I bothered spending a significant amount of time that I should be working, on writing about going through my old junk? I wasn’t that sure myself when I decided to, but now I think I understand the significance. Firstly, these media though eventually disposable, had a significance to me in my life. My everyday life and the objects I surrounded myself with were intertwined. Disposing of much of the media was emotionally distressing to a degree, because it was in some way connected to a certain period of my life, which is significantly different to the one I’m in now. Although I am now glad to be rid of much of it, the process itself was difficult. This difficulty highlighted quite how much of a significance I place in even the most disposable of things.

Secondly, I got the feeling when I was disposing of those old discs, that I wouldn’t be doing it again. That I was contributing to my eventual disassociation from physically instantiated media. Moving further away from the concept of media as object, and closer to the idea of media as effervescent flux, as message in and of itself. That may be why I, like many other people, cling to the idea of the instantiated book. It is a reference point in history, an object type that gives us a stability to say where we are in time. We can conceive of a time when the CD was not here, and thus understand quite readily that a time will come where it is not here again, but books are different. Books have always and will always be, because the idea that they won’t be is frightening.


Corey Doctorow described the significance of books better than I could at his speech to the National Reading Summit last year which I thoroughly encourage a read of.

The title of this post is a small homage to Walter Benjamin’s essay of the same name. You can read excerpts here or the full piece in the collection of essays ‘Illuminations’.